After sharing pictures from my last triathlon with my sister, she noticed I had the same silly grin on my face in all of my photos. “Weren’t you worn out at all during your race?” she asked. Despite the fatigue and the heat, my silly grin was due to the fact that six months earlier I found myself sitting in a doctor’s office trying to figure out why it was so painful just to walk ten feet. I have lived with spinal stenosis my entire life, but luckily, I had been able to manage it through maintaining an active lifestyle. But after a period of inactivity over the winter I went hiking in Joshua Tree over New Years and found it impossible to get more than a few steps until the pain became overwhelming.
I immediately went in for x-rays and was actually disappointed to hear that everything seemed “normal.” If there was nothing wrong, that meant there was no cure. I began to worry that my activities had finally caught up with me and the spinal stenosis had started winning this contest we had been having the last 20 years.
Luckily, my stubbornness and ability to stick to a game plan helped me start the road to recovery as I had planned to compete in several triathlons in the spring. First it was the simple floor exercises from the physical therapist. They never seem like you are doing anything productive, but I can now attest that the “three sets of ten” mantra does actually produce results.
Then, probably earlier than I should have, I started trying to walk the running trail I had been using only a few months earlier. Since I could remember, I had never been able to maintain a running stride without having to stop and stretch every so often due to my back, but now I was having to relieve the pressure on my spine every ten to fifteen yards. I started to go at night after the running crowd had left since I found myself spending more time on the ground stretching than on my feet. Even swimming was proving to be difficult since the way I was positioned in the water caused my legs to tingle and then soon ache. I was worried that I had finally pushed myself past a point of recovery. But regardless, I kept at it.
And kept at it, and kept at it, and kept at it. Anytime I wasn’t sitting at my desk, I was lying on the floor doing physical therapy exercises. My core was getting stronger and eventually I could ride my bike and swimming began to hurt less as well. I even began jogging short distances. At first it didn’t seem like much, but everyday came with a little progress which eventually started to add up.
In April I was signed up for a triathlon in San Diego as a warm up to a big race I had been planning to do in Austin a month later. After all of the of hard work I put in to get my back in shape, I was confident that I could complete the course, but I wasn’t positive if that meant I would be crawling across the finish line. But I didn’t crawl! I came off the bike and started running. And I kept running for 5 kilometers, not stopping once for pain. Now this isn’t a long distance for the seasoned runner, but it was the first time I had been able to run this distance uninterrupted EVER in my entire life! Not to mention just a few months prior, I could barely get from the front door to the car. This spring boarded my confidence for the race in Austin and I soon found myself running 6-10 miles a week, something I never thought I would ever do prior to signing up for these races. The hard work paid off, as I was able to finish the race in Austin in 3 minutes under my goal time and took second place in my division.
In addition to the positive effects the sport has had on my attitude and health, it has introduced me to a whole new community. Every single triathlete I meet is so encouraging and eager to do whatever they can to help you cross the finish line. This is especially true for the Challenged Athlete Foundation. My only regret is that I have not met them sooner, because since being introduced to this amazing organization, they have done everything they can to help me become the triathlete I am today. From the grant that allowed me to travel and compete in Austin to the lifelong friendships I’ve formed within their organization, I am eternally grateful for being a part of this amazing group of athletes.
In a way, I think the injury helped me become a stronger athlete because it forced me to start from the ground up (literally) and build a stronger foundation. It’s affected how I approach food because since hurting my back I’ve began eating better not only to feel good when working out, but because the leaner I am, the less pressure I am putting on my spine. And as for the spinal stenosis, its still there lurking in the corner, reminding me to stick to my game plan, but for now it can just enjoy the view as I run by.